Can This Marriage Be Saved?
by Ellen Dooley
Jim and Joan were married for 15 years, but a disturbing lack of sexual intimacy characterized 14 of those years. Joan often sat alone, crying in a darkened living room during the middle of the night, wondering what was wrong with her. Why did her husband not desire her? Most of the time Joan made the sexual advances, to which her husband responded, but he rarely initiated things. She tried sexy lingerie and he seemed to enjoy that, but not for long. She was moderately overweight, so she dieted until she fit into a single digit dress. That, too, seemed to help … but also not for long.
At Joan's suggestion, they tried marriage counseling. They saw six counselors during those years, but no long-term solutions emerged. Jim denied any childhood sexual abuse or pornography use, and Joan believed him. However, in the final year of their marriage, she began to suspect that Jim was indeed using pornography.
He had settled into a pattern of evening behavior early in their marriage. He arrived home from work, ate supper, fell asleep watching television, and then spent an hour or two in their home office "playing solitaire" on the computer. Joan often felt what she considered the Holy Spirit nudging her to go see what Jim was doing, but subconsciously she dreaded what she might find.
When she finally gathered the strength to go upstairs, she found Jim sitting at the desk with glazed eyes, clicking through pictures of naked women in vulgar positions. Joan felt as though she had been punched in the stomach. In spite of the evidence, Jim denied using pornography, saying he "didn't know how that got there." He raised his voice to Joan, telling her she was crazy.
Joan insisted that Jim receive sexual addiction counseling, but he came home after just a few sessions stating that he had been "discharged" because the problem had been "resolved." He reverted back to his previous behavior after a few weeks.
The porn trap
In their book, The Porn Trap, renowned sex and relationship therapists Wendy and Larry Maltz write: "Most porn users we've counseled or spoken with are surprised at how easily porn transformed from an occasional diversion or fantasy to a habitual problem that has the potential to destroy almost every aspect of their real lives. What began as fun, escapist sexual entertainment, or a brief but thrilling visit to a taboo world, became a trap. Like quicksand, pornography sucked them in so steadily and quietly that they didn't even notice they were sinking."
Avoiding pornography in postmodern society is no easy task. As the Maltzes put it, "Thirty years ago, getting your hands on pornography required time, money, and effort. Today it takes time, money, and effort to get away from porn. With unsolicited e-mails, deceptive links, and pop-up windows, porn can make its way into our lives whether we want it or not. As one man said, 'You no longer have to go looking for porn; porn is looking for you!'"
As Dr. Robert Palmer, professor of marriage and family therapy at Evangelical Seminary, states so poignantly (and chillingly), "Pornography stalks and hurts its prey."
Cybersex has been called the crack cocaine of sexual addictions because of the "triple-A engine" effect: accessibility, affordability, and anonymity. Consider this handful of telling statistics:
- Over 28,000 internet users are viewing pornography every second. The lion's share of pornography pages (2.4 million) belong to the United States, while Germany comes in a distant second place with about 10,000 pages.
- 372 internet users are typing adult terms into search engines every second.
- A new pornographic video is created every 39 minutes by Vivid Entertainment, Hustler, Playboy, Wicked Pictures, and Red Light District.
Addiction and marriage
According to Harvey Milkman and Stanley Sunderwrith, experts in the neurochemistry of addictions, addictions can be divided into three categories: satiation, arousal, and fantasy. Those addicted to the sense of satiation, associated with the neurotransmitters gaba-amino butyric acid and endorphins, most often utilize alcohol, benzodiazepines, opiates, and food. Those addicted to feelings of arousal, linked with the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine, normally use cocaine, amphetamines, and gambling; while those addicted to fantasy, connected with the neurotransmitter serotonin, interact with psychedelic drugs, workaholism, or compulsive religious practice. What makes sexual addiction so commanding is that it can fit into any of the aforementioned categories, but overall it is primarily an arousal addiction because sexual satisfaction may take several hours to achieve.
Moreover, according to William Struthers in his book Wired for Intimacy, the human brain can be chemically hijacked by pornography because there are more nerve cells in the human brain than stars in the universe.
Therapist Jennifer Schneider notes, "Cybersex is to sex addiction what crack cocaine has been to cocaine addiction—easy to obtain, rapidly progressive, and traps people who did not have a significant addictive problem before they found this new source of pleasure."
So, what impact does pornography have on marriage?
Multiple studies show the following results:
- Women and men who have discovered their spouse's pornography addiction feel shocked, degraded, betrayed, and inferior. The Maltzes describe four distinct stages that the unsuspecting partner may cycle through repeatedly: (1) ignorance of the problem, (2) the shock of discovery, (3) emotional wounding, and (4) attempts to cope.
- The basic foundations of a healthy marriage—honesty, fidelity, affection, intimacy, respect, support, trust and love are seriously undermined.
- If the addicted partner attended church regularly, he or she may stop attending or attend more sporadically, thereby decreasing the spiritual foundation of the marriage.
- Married men viewing pornography develop a higher tolerance for abnormal sexuality and a callous disregard for women.
- Addicts develop increasing doubts about the value of marriage.
- According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 56 percent of divorces involved one party having an obsessive interest in pornographic websites.
- Not only does the addicted spouse have a sexual disinterest in their partner, there is a marked decrease in sexual satisfaction when intercourse does occur.
- According to a study by Dolf Zillman, the addicted husband displays an increased attitude of male dominance and female servitude.
- The non-addicted spouse may develop stress-related problems such as headaches, insomnia, increased emotional sensitivity, and reactivity.
What recovery means
Not all marriages can recover from the devastation of pornography. As mentioned above, 56 percent of divorces involved one party having an obsessive interest in pornographic websites. For those marriages that can be saved, restoration is a long and winding road. As far as recovery plans go, the Maltzes' multimodal approach is the gold standard and many couples have overcome the debilitating effects of pornography utilizing their treatment plan. They suggest the following steps for the addict:
- Tell someone else about your pornography problem. By talking openly and honestly with another person about your problem you automatically weaken your connection to porn because the addiction thrives in an atmosphere of isolation, secrecy, and denial.
- Get involved in a treatment program. Make good use of porn addiction resources like 12-step meetings and sex-addiction professionals. Many people the Maltzes interviewed said ongoing treatment changed their lives in profoundly positive ways. Treatment included concrete tools for quitting, attaching themselves to positive role models who were further down the recovery road, insights into their addictive behavior, and ongoing evaluation of progress.
- Create a porn-free environment. More precisely, clear it out and keep it out. Clearing out porn requires getting rid of any type of porn stored in the home, on cable porn channels, on the computer, at work, in the car, etc. Blocking it out necessitates the purchase of blocking software for the computer, such as the resources offered at XXXChurch.com.
- Also beneficial is placing inspirational pictures around the computer, such as the kids, your spouse, other family members and friends.
- Move the computer to public space in the home, not in a den or bedroom. This removes the sense of isolation and secrecy.
- Turning away from porn means having an addiction prevention plan to carry out when tempted. Remember, a commitment to breaking pornography addiction has to be renewed one day at a time.
- Establish 24-hour support and accountability. Have a same-sex mentor you can call when your trigger is activated.
- Take care of your physical and emotional health. Stopping an addiction is hard work and can be quite stressful. Make sure you're eating a balanced diet, getting sufficient exercise and rest, and spending time with supportive, encouraging friends.
- Work on restoring trust in the marital relationship—talking must be accompanied by actions. The offending partners must prove themselves to be dependable and credible for as long as it takes.
- Put yourself in the offended partner's shoes by understanding their experience and sense of betrayal. Talk openly with your spouse regarding what they have gone through because of pornography.
- Start healing your sexuality. Realize that pornographic behavior does not work in real life intimate relationships. Learn how to have a healthy sexual relationship with your spouse. Relearn the art of touch.
- Make a commitment to renew your mind through reading and memorizing Scripture. This applies to the offended partner as well.
Counseling is in order not just for the addict but also for the offended partner, who must eventually move from anger to forgiveness in order to rebuild the friendship and the marriage. Marriage counseling is a must so that the couple can learn to communicate more effectively. Increasingly healthy communication will help the couple regain feelings of closeness and intimacy.
What the church can do to help
Pastors and church leaders can no longer hide their heads in the sand, pretending that a significant number of church attendees, especially males, do not have a problem with pornography. Just a quick look at the following statistics proves that people are people are people, whether or not they attend church. It must be remembered that we are fallen human beings living in a fallen world trying to squeeze us into its mold.
Fifty-three percent of Promise Keeper men admitted to viewing pornography within the previous seven days, while 47 percent of Christians stated that pornography is a major problem in the home. Fifty-one percent of pastors say that internet pornography is a possible temptation for them, and 37 percent admit that it's a current struggle.
The church can represent Christ to those struggling with pornography, putting flesh on the gospel. Here are a few suggestions that warrant a serious look:
- Offer a support group. Good programs include Sex Addicts Anonymous and S-Anon, a 12-step program for loved ones.
- Host a pornography conference at your church. Organizations to contact for presenters include Bethesda Workshops, Del Amo Hospital, and Faithful and True.
- Refer people to solid resources. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy provides help in locating a marriage and/or sexual addiction therapist. Get Net Wise is a coalition of internet industry corporations and public interest organizations that provide information on keeping children safe online and how to block unwanted pornographic email. International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals offers treatment options and program referrals. Sexual Compulsives Anonymous is a 12-step program.
- Purchase good resources for your church library.
Do not shun the addict. Remember that, like you, the addict is created in the image of God. We must treat the addict with dignity and respect while not condoning their sin.
A graduate of Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, Pa., Ellen Dooley, MDiv, is a pastor, author, and motivational speaker.